Philippine prehistory and its peopling is a controversial topic within the disciplines of anthropology, archaeology, genetics, and linguistics up to this day. There is a variety of data that has been sifted through in coming up with several theories on how this archipelago, as well as its neighboring set of islands, has been colonized by the human species thousands of years ago. The first evidence of human settlement in what is now the Philippines was found in Tabon Cave in Palawan back in 1970. A skullcap was excavated, apart from animal remains, and was dated to 16,500 years ago. However, a recent excavation in Callao Cave in Cagayan yielded a metatarsal (foot bone), which was dated to 26,000 years ago, making the possibility of human presence in Luzon earlier than previously thought.
For most Filipinos, the historical foundation for the peopling of the Philippines has been H. Otley Beyer’s Waves of Migration hypothesis. It has been taught (and continues to be) in elementary levels as one of the first lessons in basic Philippine history, or more correctly, prehistory, since some history textbooks begin the discussion of our history with the arrival of the Spaniards in 1521. Beyer, the Father of Philippine Anthropology, formulated this hypothesis while teaching history at the University of the Philippines. He would eventually go on to found the Department of Anthropology and become its first dean. This hypothesis, though widely accepted in the early part of the 20th century, has fallen out of favor in the academe due to its focus on diffusion and anachronistic categories; it was his students, such as the late F. Landa Jocano, that disproved the Waves of Migration.
In this popular yet now-refuted theory, Beyer proposed that the Philippines was originally populated by Negritos––dark-skinned, wide-nosed, foragers––similar to the Aetas of today. This part of the theory remains widely accepted, with Negritos being considered as Australoids, or the earlier batch of H. sapiens to make it out of Africa and reached as far as Australia, where this group makes up its Aborigines. The archipelago was migrated into in three major waves by different groups––Malay, Indones A and B. These groups had distinct cultures and were even stated to vary in terms of nose breadth and size. Such categories reflected the dominant anthropological analyses of the time, with much attention given to physical features in the context of racial difference. A second problem arose with the fact that Malaysia and Indonesia did not exist at the time, and thus creating not just a misnomer, but also a conundrum.
For most Filipinos, the historical foundation for the peopling of the Philippines has been H. Otley Beyer’s Waves of Migration hypothesis…This hypothesis, though widely accepted in the early part of the 20th century, has fallen out of favor in the academe due to its focus on diffusion and anachronistic categories; it was his students, such as the late F. Landa Jocano, that disproved the Waves of Migration.
New evidence then emerged in the field of linguistics, where it was noticed that Philippine languages such as Tagalog, Cebuano, and Ibanag had much in common with Bahasa (Malaysia/Indonesia), Malagsy (Madagascar), Maori (New Zealand), and languages from Taiwan. Given these cognates (words that resemble each other in form and meaning), linguists Robert Blust and Lawrence Reid have sought to reconstruct the original language, which they deemed Austronesian (from Greek, ‘south’ and ‘islands’). The two main branches in this linguistic family tree are Formosan and Malayo-Polynesian. On linguistic analysis, it was seen that Formosan or indigenous Taiwanese languages had the highest diversity within its own classification, and thus, following theories also used in evolutionary biology and genetics, Taiwan (or nearby Southern China) was seen to be the Austronesian ‘homeland.’
Given these linguistic data, it was built upon by Robert Bellwood, who sought to add more tangible support via correlation of archaeological findings. Bellwood refined the Austronesian hypothesis to have originated in the agricultural communities of Neolithic southern China in 4000 BC. Some of them then crossed to Taiwan, a few families at a time, until there arose a vast cultural system with a sophisticated agricultural economy, cultivating rice. According to Bellwood, this is consistent with the archaeological record, in the Tapenking culture of Taiwan. Only after such a society was established could there be vast migration by boat to the rest of Island Southeast Asia, southward to Batanes and the rest of Luzon. The Philippines then becomes a gateway to the west: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Andaman Islands, to as far as Madagascar, as well as to the east: Melanesia, Polynesia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Easter Island. Lapita culture––highly decorated pottery¬¬ discovered in the Pacific, dated from 1600 BC to 1 AD, is Bellwood’s strongest material basis for the movement, apart from boat designs and fish-hooks.
The Austronesian theory was also featured and popularized in the work of writer Jared Diamond, as “The Express Train to Polynesia.” But the use of the Philippines as a possible springboard to the rest of the Pacific and Indian Ocean has made Bellwood’s theory very popular in the country. Linguists have cited Ibanag as one ‘prototype’ of Austronesian languages, apart from anthropologists such as E. Arsenio Manuel arguing for the renaming of the Malayo-Polynesian branch of the linguistic family tree to Philippineasian, to reflect the population movement, parallel with Formosan.It is interesting to note that there is definite mutual intelligibility between the natives of the southernmost part of Taiwan, or Orchid Island (Yami), and those in the northern island of Itbayat in Batanes. Some historians and anthropologists such as Zeus Salazar have also tried linking cultural elements of the Philippines with the more Pacific-side Austronesians, like the Cordilleran bulol with the Easter Island/Rapa Nui moai.
However, not everyone agrees with Bellwood’s theory due to several reasons. Some argue that, based on climate and current data, the cross from South China to Taiwan, much less the Taiwan-Batanes crossing, seems improbable for simple canoes to accomplish, since the prevailing winds and currents are usually strong in the opposite direction (northward). This led to a theory that discussed movement from Southern China towards Indochina then into the Malaysian Peninsula, though little evidence has been found to support this. In the dissenting view, the archaeological record seems to be unable to support this grand, simplistic theory, since it is greatly hinged upon linguistic conjecture rather than material culture. One of these is William Meacham, who, though agreed on the concept of an Austronesian homeland, was quite unconvinced by the out-of-Taiwan theory, and instead, specified a land between Taiwan, Sumatra, and Tenggara.
Wilhelm Solheim’s Nusantao hypothesis was an alternative theory that focused on the maritime nature of the peopling of the Philippines and Southeast Asia, rather than following a ‘primacy’ of linguistics and agricultural methods. The cradle or ‘homeland’ of these Austronesian-speaking peoples lay not in Taiwan or Southern China, but rather, in the area of Celebes Sea, Island South East Asia (ISEA). He considered that the Nusantao would probably be similar to the indigenous groups like the Badjao and Samal, who continue to be seafaring in nature. Solheim believes that the Proto-Austronesian developed as a ‘barter language’ among the peoples who originate in the Northern Mindanao-Southern Indonesian area in 5000 BC, who then moved into the Philippines then upward to Taiwan. At this point, he and Bellwood agree that there is movement to the west to Madagascar then east into Melanesia and Polynesia. However, Solheim also posited that the Nusantao also reached the coasts of Vietnam, as well as Southern Korea and Japan.He also named a pottery tradition that strengthens the claims––Sa-huynh-Kalanay pottery.
The Nusantao hypothesis has been strongly accepted by some in the academe who disagree with Bellwood’s diffusionist model. By focusing on maritime trade or barter, Solheim escaped an analysis that was deterministic in a one-way migratory process that seemed unrealistic outside the language studies; the Nusantao Maritime Trading and Communication Network (NMTCN) or its full name, emphasized spheres of influence as a network, rather than just migratory patterns. In fact, this hypothesis is the prevailing view in state institutions such as the National Museum of the Philippines, as seen in their 2009 Voyage of the Balangay expedition that that featured the same team of Filipinos who scaled Mt. Everest, heading to Madagascar from Manila Bay, in a reconstruction of an excavated longboat in Butuan, which is now displayed at the entrance of the Museum’s main building.
A major determinant in mapping human migration is genetic analysis, and over the past decade, several studies have elucidated the matter. Mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosomal analyses were especially undertaken, since, as uniparental genes (coming only from the mother and father, respectively), mutations or alterations throughout generations are few, making them ideal for studying migration. In his early Y-chromosomal analysis, there seemed to be support towards an out-of-Taiwan view, seen in haplogroup M119, which was present in all Austronesians. However, more recent studies have refuted this, showing that Western Austronesians (Indonesians) had different variants of haplogroup O1a-M119 from those in Taiwan, and thus a paternal lineage from ISEA rather than Taiwan. Even the Yami and Ivatan were shown to have few similarities in their Y-chromosomes despite the aforementioned linguistic similarity. As for mtDNA, a study dating variations in haplogroup E among individuals from ISEA (including Filipinos) and Taiwan revealed increased diversity inmaternal lineage from ISEA, refuting an origin of Austronesians from Taiwan.
Given the various forms of data––linguistic, archaeological, genetic and cultural––it is important not to overly rely on one source and simply seek to fit in the rest, as all have their limitations; genes cannot tell what language is spoken in the area, while it is of little practical use to argue whether a pot was used for agriculture or was bartered for.
Studies by Stephen Oppenheim, a geneticist who worked on Southeast Asian and Pacific peoples, have shown that the “express train” migration may have been a “slow boat” due to the genetic variation between ISEA and Polynesia, which would take much longer than the time frame provided by Bellwood. With the recent data, a new theory has been put out by Oppenheim et al., building on Meacham’s and Solheim’s theories of origins in ISEA. According to the genetic data, there seems to be a “large-scale dispersal” in the area of ISEA as early as 15,000 to 7,000 years ago due to rising sea level from climate change (glacial melting) in the now-inundated Sunda Peninsula (now comprising the islands of Western Indonesia and Borneo), with led to older variants haplogroup E becoming present in Taiwan and Oceania. This out of Sundaland concept claims to have archaeological evidence in the form of stone tools and technocomplexes.
Given the various forms of data––linguistic, archaeological, genetic and cultural––it is important not to overly rely on one source and simply seek to fit in the rest, as all have their limitations; genes cannot tell what language is spoken in the area, while it is of little practical use to argue whether a pot was used for agriculture or was bartered for. It is quite possible that the Austronesian languages, the pottery traditions or stone tool assemblages, the haplogroups, and traditions all tell different parts of the same story, which will continue to change as new evidence is unearthed and discovered. “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” the adage goes. But while speculation remains, there can hardly be any consensus on the origins of modern-day Filipinos and their neighbors. Theories will be disproven, as Waves of Migration was, while new ones are published, requiring critical scrutiny and careful synthesis of the evidence at hand.
Josh San Pedro is an aspiring physician-anthropologist. A graduate of both Anthropology and Medicine from the University of the Philippines, he dabbles in the fields of social medicine, critical medical anthropology, and health & development.
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